Chinese Food in New York 100 Years Ago

January 15, 2016

Mapo tofu, the classic Sichuan dish that once seemed exotic to New Yorkers is now as ubiquitous as General Tso’s chicken (a sweet and purely American invention best consumed as a crossword clue). America is, at last, brimming with great Chinese food.

But it hasn’t always been like this. I’ve often written about the ways in which immigration laws drive the food we eat. If you want to read about the various changes in Chinese cooking in America, this 1994 review of Tang Pavillion lays it out.

If you don’t feel like reading it all, suffice it to say that until 1966 most Chinese restaurants in America served Cantonese food because most of the early immigrants came from the Pearl River Delta.  They were all men, they weren’t cooks, and they longed for a taste of home. They did their best to recreate familiar dishes but with a few exceptions (Cecilia Chiang‘s The Mandarin being a notable one), most of the food served in American Chinese restaurants did little to reflect the glories of Chinese cuisine.

The New York Public Library recently digitized its menu collection, and I went looking for the oldest Chinese restaurant menu I could find. Fascinating: just look at some of these dishes! Chop suey was invented in this country, but it approximates a method of stir-frying leftover scraps popular in Toy San, in Guangdong Province. Many of these dishes, however, are purely American.

Rice with maple syrup anyone?

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This is a different Chinatown restaurant, on Mott Street, in a 1907 photograph. I’m struck by both the elegance and diversity of the crowd.. Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.25.21 AM


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